Friday, December 31, 2010

Book thirty-seven: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I started this year with a new idea: Keep a book journal.  And rather than writing it in an old fashioned book, I decided to keep my book journal online.  It's been a great way to enjoy reading even more.  Just this morning, I finished the last book of 2010, Murial Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog. 

And what a great way to end the year.  Here's a book that introduces the reader to a pair of great characters. The first, a 50-something French concierge (Renee) working in a Paris condominium inhabited by upper-class families.  The second, a precocious 12-year-old girl (Paloma) who is the daughter of one of the upper-class families.  Both are characters who don't live up to their cultural expectations.  Both their lives are changed forever by the appearance of a wise, Japanese gentleman (Kakuro).

Let me start by saying there are a whole bunch of literary, philosophical, musical, and cultural references that went right over my head.  You really need to know your Russian literature and your Japanese Art films to get the most out of this book.  But even though I didn't have all the background info I may have needed, it didn't make the book any less enjoyable.  In fact, it may have made the characters all the more loveable.

If you're looking for a funny (I laughed out loud several times), emotional, charming, and slightly tragic story this is the perfect book.  I won't say much more than that because I'd hate to give away any of the surprises.  I will say that this book, written in first person from the perspective of the two key characters, does something that I never imagined a first person story could accomplish without being totally stupid.  That's a testament to Muriel Barbery's beautiful writing.

Now, I guess I just have to decide what will be my first book in 2011.

The art of the Christmas stocking, part two.

The most commented-on post I've written recently is the one about Christmas stockings.  So I decided an update is in order.  

Let's start with this bit of news.  In my last post I mentioned that as a kid, I created an R2D2 stocking the year that Star Wars was released.  I thought the stocking was long lost but someone rummaging through boxes in my basement recently found it.  Here is the Star Wars stocking that started it all.

Sure my execution skills have improved.  But really, how can you not love an R2D2 stocking, even if it is a little wonky? There's something weirdly goofy about a kid who creates a felt incarnation of R2D2.  And I'm not sure that kid has recovered from said goofiness. Here is this year's official Christmas stocking.

I call it Christmas Monkey from the Popeye Series.  It's a somewhat obscure reference to the work of Jeff Koons.  But just to prove I'm not making this stuff up, here are a few images of Jeff Koons works featuring the monkey that inspired the stocking. 

Koons even wrapped a CT Scanner for a children's hospital as part of the RxART program.

I'm guessing my goofy penchant for all things felt will continue next year.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book thirty-six: Popular Culture and High Culture by Herbert Gans.

Here's a book I'm not going to spend too much time writing about, mainly because I spent too much time reading it.  Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste Revised and Updated by Herbert Gans is a mostly academic treatise which tries to make the case that the world should pay more attention to popular culture.  I suppose the title should have been a clue that this book is a snoozer.  But in my defense, I read the book on the recommendation of a friend: a friend who HASN'T READ THE BOOK!

Maybe when this book was originally written in 1975, its arguments made more sense.  But I live in a world where well-educated, middle and upper-middle class Americans have no problem vacillating between a day at the museum and a night at a honky-tonk club getting drunk and dancing with the locals.  Oh sure, there are still those culture snobs that will never admit that anything good can come from Rap music.  But does anyone really take them seriously anymore?

Sure, maybe the poor and other under-served communities still don't get the time and attention they deserve on the cultural landscape.  But we're working on it.  And even if the author is right, he makes absolutely no realistic suggestions for how to solve the problem and he even admits that his ideas are impossible.

From my perspective, if you want to explore the wonders of popular vs. high culture, spend an afternoon at the county fair followed by a night at the symphony.  It won't be nearly as time consuming as reading this book and I'll bet you'll get a lot more pleasure from the experience.

Book thirty-five: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham.

My literary tour of the New York art scene continues with Michael Cunningham's new novel, By Nightfall. This is the story of Peter, a successful gallery owner (although not "Gagosian" successful) in New York and his wife Rebecca.  They've long been content in their marriage although maybe something has been lost.  Things are distrupted when Rebecca's much younger brother Ethan arrives.  Ethan, nicknamed Mizzy (short for "Mistake"), is a recovering drug adict and, in general, trouble; albeit handsome, smart trouble.

Cunningham writes beautifully about the art world.  I loved the scene where Peter and a friend take a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just after the friend has revealed she has breast cancer and is closing her gallery.  The ensuing scene pits two great works of art against each other.  The first is Rodin's The Bronze Age a stunning, life-sized bronze of a young nude man. And yet this sculpture is something you, "pass on your way to see the Damien Hirst." 

The Hirst in question is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. A title that makes the work somehow more relevant in a scene featuring a woman dying of cancer.  If you haven't scene the work, it's a 13-foot dead shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde.  It's worth reading By Nightfall for this scene alone, with it's questions about life and death; questions somehow lost on a young teenage couple falling in love.

That's not all I like about this book.  I like the nod to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.  And the art work of the young, up-and-coming artist is fascinating. (Maybe I should make my name in art by realizing the fictional works of art imagined in literature.) And the surprises toward the end of the novel were lovely and rewarding.  This book is melancholy, maybe even tragic.  But somehow, it left me happy; enough so that I've already downloaded another Cunningham novel.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Book thirty-four: An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin.

Oh to be Steve Martin.  A funny, writer, musician, screenwriter, art collector, and brilliant Twitterer.  Is there nothing this man can't do?  Oh sure, all my friends point to the Pink Panther remakes to cut him down to size.  But those are minor blemishes on an otherwise brilliant career from a man who seems larger than life. And just to make sure we haven't forgetten, Steve gives us his new novel, An Object of Beauty.  Thanks Steve, for making us all feel yet again, inadequate.

Let me start by saying that I may be predisposed to like this book based on content alone. The novel takes an insider's look at the New York art scene from auction houses, to galleries, to the artists themselves.  And since I'm a big fan of fine art, An Object of Beauty had me enthralled from the opening moments. 

The book tells the story of Lacey Yeager, a young, beautiful, ambitious women set on climbing her way to the top of the art gallery world, even if it means engaging in some questionable activities.  The story is told ingeniously by Lacey's friend Daniel.  I love how the book gets so caught up in Lacey's story that you forget Daniel is telling it.  Then, just at the right moments, Daniel pulls you out of the narrative and gives you a paragraph or two of insight. 

It's obvious that Martin is a fan of art.  Some of the most engaging moments in the book are musings on art and artists.  I think Martin secretly wishes to be an art critic. Maybe that's why he's cast Daniel as a successful art writer.

But what makes An Object of Beauty such an engaging read is Martin's ability to effortlessly present characters and stories.  This book seems almost obvious; like it wrote itself, as if the story and characters always existed and just now appeared magically on the page.  Never do words get in the way of the characters.  Never does plot, or structure, or character development get in the way of the story.  It's a testament to Steve Martin's talent that it's as if there is no effort involved in writing this book because as a writer I know that's not the case. 

Of course, there's also a sophisticated humor that runs throughout the book.  Lacey Yeager is nothing if not quick witted.  Many of the chapters end with her sharp, funny statements that make you want to hang out with her.  And there are plenty of other funny moments that made me laugh.  I have to note a reference to one of my favorite Steve Martin movies, L.A. Story.  In one of its most memorable scenes, Steve Martin's character and one of his friends visit a museum.  While there, Steve reveals his secret roller skates and glides through the galleries while his friend video tapes him.  You can imagine my delight then, at this exchange from An Object of Beauty between Lacey and Daniel in reference to an Italian furniture exhibit at the Guggenheim:

Lacey: "I'd rather fuck an Italian than sit on his furniture."
Daniel: "You didn't like it?"
Lacey: "I guess I was unclear. No."
Daniel: "How come?"
Lacey: "Taste? Only one thing could have made it better."
Daniel: "What's that?"
Lacey: "Roller skates."

Steve Martin isn't afraid to make fun of the absurdities of the contemporary art world. Take, for example, the conversation that happens at a party attended by the art-world elite.  The discussion turns to a lamentation on the end of real art movements like Cubism, Surrealism, Minimalism, Pop, etc. (That in itself is funny because at the time, I don't think anyone would have considered Pop a "real" art movment.") In response, the party guests start to enumerate new categories of art including "pale art" (faint things with not much going on in them), "high-craft OCD" (those guys who take a thousand pinheads and paint a picture of their grandmother on every one), "low-craft ironics" (a fancy name for wink-wink nudge nudge), "animated interiors" (apocolyptic scenes of stuff flying around a room), "angry pussy" (stuff made with menstrual blood), and my personal favorite "junk on the floor" (about which Hinton, a big time collector says, "You walk into a gallery and there's stuff strewn everywhere. I've got three of those.")  I think I've seen works in all of these categories.

Then there are the moments of just plain wonderful writing.  Like when Patrice, the Frenchman who has hopelessly fallen for Lacey, walks with her through the streets of New York.  The passage reads like a scene from Breakfast at Tiffany's: beautiful, romantic, with a literary sparkle.  And yet, it somehow aches with melancholy: "Madisson Avenue was just beginning to flicker on. They walked down the street, sometimes arm in arm, sometimes with Lacey breaking away to physically exaggerate a point, walking backward, then slue-footing around to take his hand or slip her arm through the crook of his elbow."  That's enough to make anyone want to take a chance on love and art in New York City. And to read whatever Martin writes next.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The art of the Christmas stocking.

Some 30-plus years ago I saw the original Stars Wars and was transfixed.  That year for Christmas, I created an original stocking that featured a brilliant felt version of R2D2.  The R2D2 stocking has long since been lost.  But I tell this story in hopes that it somehow explains a bizarre habit I've developed.

For more than a decade, I've made a unique stocking each and every holiday season.  Most of the stockings have been given to my good friend Felix.  But in more recent years, I've taken to making multiples so that even more people can roll their eyes at my strange holiday tradition.  The most recent stockings have been inspired by pop culture icons or the fine-art world. And I have to say, there's something strangely rewarding about translating the art world into the classic trappings of Christmas stockings, namely felt, glitter, beads, and crystals.

So, as a special holiday post, I give you my most recent, favorite Christmas stockings:

In 2007,  I created For the Love of Christmas.  Yes, for you art lovers that's a reference to Damien Hirst's diamond encrusted, platinum skull created the same year titled For the Love of God.  Let's face it, a black/gray stocking with a glitter skull says something about the whole Christmas story.  Or maybe not.

©Christmas was the stocking for 2008.  I've got an extra version of this stocking for the first person who can name the artist I'm referencing and why I titled it the way I did.  I'm pretty sure there's a copyright infringement associated with this stocking.

Last year's stocking strayed into the world of pop movie icons.  I call this The Rocky Horror Christmas Show. 

Get a load of the hand-beaded detail on the lip logo.

This year's Christmas stocking is currently in production. But it won't be revealed until Christmas eve.  A hint: I've returned to plagiarizing the stars of the fine art world.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

You're right. This is totally gay.

I've been following this story for a while and it's finally a reality.  I just got my tickets. And even though this event won't happen until June of 2011, I'm so excited I had to write a post.  Next June, in what may be the gayest trip ever, I'll be going to San Francisco to see a new musical theater production based on Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City with music and lyrics by Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters.  Holy cow.  Even for me, that's a whole lotta gay.  I can hardly wait!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Abstract iPadexpressionism.

As an iPad owner, I haven't been that impressed with the device.  I also haven't been afraid to voice my complaints.  Sure the touch interface is amazing.  But it takes more than that to win me over.  And there's plenty wanting when it comes to the iPad. I mean really, I couldn't even turn the thing on when I first got it because my iMac isn't new enough.  I had to borrow a friends computer to get it running. And just try to post to Blogger from your iPad. It's impossible unless you know HTML.  HTML!?!  Why don't you just ask me to code my blog in DOS?

All that said, there are a few things that are starting to make me appreciate the iPad, and most of those things are the apps. It's proof that when you give a so-so product to a bunch of inventive techno wizards, you get some really amazing results.  A couple of my favorites include the Glee app and the Scrabble app.  But the app that has me all abuzz is the Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA) new app developed in conjunction with it's current exhibit, Abstract Expressionist New York (Ab Ex NY). The app is free and you can download it here.

Now  I'm not the biggest fan of Abstract Expressionism but I'd love to see this show which boasts some of the best artists from the middle of last century. Unfortunately, I may not make it to NYC before this show closes on April 25, 2011.  That's why I want to say thanks to the curators at MoMA for offering such a great way to experience the show digitally.  The Ab Ex NY app let's you browse the show.  When you select a specific work, you can get more info about the artist and the painting or sculpture.  Plus, you can zoom into the high-res photos and get a decent idea of what the paint looks like on the canvas; or the texture of the finish on sculptures. It's still not like seeing the real thing, but it's a lot better than any other reproduced format I've experienced.

Plus there are plenty of other goodies.  You can watch engaging videos about the artists and their works.  There's a great interactive map of New York City that relates the exhibit to the city itself, showing you where the artists lived and worked or where you can see other works by the artists featured in the exhibit.  You can even shop for Ab Ex NY art books and merchandise directly from the app.

Beatifully art directed and ingeniously organized, I give MoMA's Ab Ex NY app a big thumbs up.  And I hope other museums will take a cue from thismake it possible to enjoy other exhibits

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book thirty-three: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu.

If you like your novels quirky with a big dose of existential melancholy, then get thee to a copy of Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.  Don't ask me why I picked up this book because I'm not much of a science fiction fan. Although the goofy title is partially to blame. How can you not want to read something with that title?  I'm glad I read it.

This is a story of a of recreational time machine repairman.  Not just any recreational time machine repairman, but one that happens to be the son of the man who invented the time machine in is his garage.  The main character, Charles Yu (yes that's the same name as the author), spends much of his time in a tiny time machine traveling the decades with the help of his scroungy dog and his personified Microsoft operating system, Tammy. (Yes, at some time in the future, Microsoft makes its operating system available for time machines.)  Tammy is one of my favorite characters.  She's always a little depressed and maybe even suicidal, which leaves Charles wondering what happens if your time-machine operating system decides to end it all.  When Charles realizes he may be too distant from the present to get his machine back in time for needed repairs, Tammy wonders, "Is it my fault?"  When Charles replies that it's his fault Tammy asks hopefully, "Is it my fault that it's your fault?"

There are plenty of other delightful characters and stories in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe to make it a super fun read. I won't pretend to have understood all the mind-bending, time-traveling technology outlined in this book. But maybe I wasn't supposed to understand it.  I mean it is science fictional after all.

The bigger surprise is the book's more subversive, serious side .  It's that side of the book that is most rewarding.  How to Live Safely talks about time travel from a perspective of past tense, present tense, and future tense, giving it a literary bite that gets under your skin. At one point Charles puts his machine into present-indefinite gear which, "isn't even a real gear. It's like cruise control." It's through this lens of grammatical time that Yu asks the reader to ponder his or her own life.  Are we all stuck in a time loop?  Do we avoid our past because we don't want to think about something difficult? Are we too afraid of the future to really move forward?  Don't read this book if don't want to face some pretty big philosophical questions. Do read this book if you want the fun of a great science fiction story combined with the angst-filled philosophy of Kirkegaard.

I'll close with a passage from the book:

"How many times have I gone around this loop, refusing to move forward? How much of my life have I spent cycling through these events, trying to learn from them, attempting to decipher the meaning of this tableau in front of me. . .  What is this called, what I am doing, to myself, to my life, the wallowing, this pondering, this rolling over and over in the same places of my memory, wearing them thin, wearing them out? Why don't I ever learn? Why don't I do anything different?"

Monday, November 29, 2010

Book thirty-two: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Told in first person from two points of view, Chris Cleave's Little Bee is the story of a young Nigerian refugee and her unlikely savior, Sarah.  The book is written well enough, although I sometimes grew tired of the chapters told from Little Bee's point of view.  The delight of the story is Sarah's son Charles (a.k.a. Batman, because he refuses to take off is Batman costume).  His antics give the story some much needed levity.

I have two observations  about  the book.  First, it's tragic.  Epically tragic.  Horrifically tragic.  In fact just when you think it can't get any more tragic, it gets more tragic. Some of that misery felt heavy handed and overworked.

But the tragedy leads me to my second observation: Maybe we need a little heavy-handed, hit-you-over-the-head-with-its-horror story telling when it comes to the travesties occurring in Nigeria and other areas of Africa.  I regularly read holocaust stories that are tragic. Epically tragic.  Horrifically tragic.  And somehow they don't seem as annoying.  Maybe that's because they happened in the past and I can soothe my conscience by thinking I would have done the right thing if I'd been alive at that time.  But I'm alive in a time when terrible things are happening to entire populations in Africa and around the globe.  And this book makes me wonder if I'm doing the right thing.  Do I even know what the right thing is?  Have I spent enough time to educate myself about the situation?  So while the tragedy of this book can be uncomfortable, it at least made me want to be more aware of difficult global situations so that if and when the opportunity arises, I might be more likely to do the right thing.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Book thirty-one: C by Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy's novel C may be the best-written book I've read this year.  Is it the year's best book? I'm not sure.  But it's easily in the top three or four. And I'm having a hard time thinking of a book that is better written.  Maybe Tinkers.

The book follows the life of Serge Carrefax, from his unusual birth, through his service in World War One, to a drug fueled college career, and on to a return to government service with a stint in Egypt. I picked this book up because a reviewer I respect gave it high marks and called it "strenuously intellectual."  I took that as a reading challenged and expected a book that would be difficult, but hopefully rewarding.

What I didn't expect was a book that was delightful and beautiful.  Sure, there are a lot of historical, philosophical, and scientific references in this book that went right over my head.  I'll bet there are a whole grundle of references that I didn't even know were references.  But you can read this book on other levels.

For example, you can read C just for the stories.  I loved the opening section about Serge's childhood and growing up in a quirky British family.  We meet his father Mr. Simeon Carrefax, a brilliant character. He's a tinkerer of early wireless technologies who receives a delivery of copper wires in the same wagon that brings the doctor who delivers Serge.  Carrefax runs a school for deaf children that refuses to allow sign language. All this takes place at the quirky family estate known as Versoie.  This is such a wondrous, weird, funny place that I'm considering naming my house Versoie.  I might even take to insisting that friends refer to the front yard as the "Mulberry Lawn" and the back yard as the "Crypt Garden."  I could grow lime trees and keep bees.

You can also read this book on a literary level. C makes you wish for one of your favorite college literature professors to guide you through the themes.  The book crawls with insects that seem to invade the electrically charged story.  There's a Kafka-esque merger of bugs and technology and humanity.  This is a place where even the fireflies pulse "photically, in dots and dashes." This hints at another of the book's central themes: the buzzing, whirring, electrified technology that drives the character's lives.  C takes the early communications technology of the late 19th and early 20 Centuries and uses it to say something about now.  Maybe that's because we too find ourselves wrapped up in figuring out a whole new set of communications technologies.

One of the best reasons to read this book is the writing. Tom McCarthy is one talented writer.  C offers a dreamy, liquid style that might be pompous if it weren't so beautiful. Even though lush, the writing doesn't gets in the way of the story. Some passages are lyrical, almost poetic and themes emerge and re-emerge in subtle and delightful ways.

Sure, I'm still trying to process the book's fantastical, fever-induced hallucinogenic ending but even that is good reading.   So maybe I'll just wander out to the Crypt Garden, check in on the bees, and ponder it all.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Dia de los Muertos moment. (Or maybe my house is just haunted.)

It's Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and I'm celebrating this Mexican tradition of honoring those who have gone before by posting a couple of photos.  Several times during the past few weeks a strange apparition has been found on my front door.  Is it just me or does that look suspiciously like a skull? 

Maybe it's my ancestors giving me a sign that they've blessed my house.  Or, as my friend Felix suggests, maybe my house is haunted.  And according to Felix, if it is haunted, it has something to do with the front door.  How does he know?  Because when you leave a set of keys in the front door's dead bolt lock, they swing suspiciously for 10, 15, even 20 minutes with no additional physical encouragement. 

Then again, it could just be a cool play of light. I'll let you be the judge.  Whatever it is, I still appreciate all my ancestors have done for me.  Happy Dia de los Muertos.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Love sucks.

It's Halloween so I figure there's no better day for a post about Pioneer Theatre Company's (PTC) current production of Bram Stoker's Dracula.  I recently read a modern vampire tale, The Passage.  In that book, there's a scene where one of the main characters, Peter, watches an old vampire movie.  And he comments on how slow Dracula moves compared to his experience with vampires.  A little bit, this production felt the same way.  Yes I know that's because I've been desensitized by Hollywood's ability to produce stuff that's faster, bigger, more spectacular, and scarier than pretty much anything PTC can put on stage. But it's still a valid point.

Nonetheless, there is plenty to like about Charles Morey's stage adaptation of Stoker's classic novel. The play delivers a spooky Victorian attitude that I liked.  It made me want to know what it would be like to read a scary, strange story at a time before TV, Movies, or CGI.  And PTC did get my heart racing several times during the production. 

Mark Elliot Wilson is creepy and repulsive as Count Dracula.  And isn't that what you want from Dracula? Bob Ari delivers a perfect, Victorian version of Abraham Van Helsing.  I also liked Stephanie Fieger as Lucy Westenra, but aren't we glad that women have progressed since the late 19th Century.

What I like best about PTC's Dracula is the staging and direction.  The set is great.  But it wouldn't be as great if it weren't used so skillfully by director Morey.  And none of that would have mattered if it weren't for Kendall Smith's lighting design.  This is one of the best lit shows I've seen at PTC.

If you're in the mood for some scary theater, you've got one more week.  Bram Stoker's Dracula runs through November 6.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book thirty: The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage by Justin Cronin is part Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games, part Cormac McCarthy's The Road, part sweeping fantasy epic in the tradition of Tolkien, and part the Bible.  This is one ambitious work of fiction.  And Cronin's writing lives up to the high bar he's set for himself.  Clocking in at more that 17,000 kindle units (that's about 800 pages for you old-school readers), this book has real thud factor; although I guess as a Kindle user that doesn't make any sense since even a book this big weighs only 8.7 ounces.

Cronin is a story teller.  His writing is crisp, clean, and descriptive. In fact many moments in the book are almost magical.  I loved the scene where soldiers and one of the central characters, Peter, watch the movie Dracula.  At this moment in the future, the movie is more than 150 years old, and it's the first movie Peter has ever seen.  Cronin brilliantly balances the rowdy soldiers (who've seen this movie so often they know all of the dialogue) with Peter's quiet awe and emotional engagement.  It's surprising how Cronin even manages to make the movie relevant to the story he's telling.

While the writing is almost always good, The Passage can get tedious, at least for me who may not be the best critic to read an apocalyptic vampire book, particularly when I'm reading it on the heels of the Hunger Games trilogy.  My friend Felix, who read The Passage before me, delighted in confusing me by asking questions like, "Have you gotten to the part where Katniss and Peta (characters from the Hunger Games) fight off the virals at the compound (a plausible moment in The Passage)?"  It was confusing because it seemed like a logical plot development in either book.

It can also be tedious when it gets to the endless walking and the driving and the horseback riding.  Many of those passages reminded me of The Road, only longer.  And you know how I felt about The Road. I'm one of the few people who didn't like it. But being compared to McCarthy isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Almost everyone I know liked the book and the critical acclaim for McCarthy's writing should make Cronin feel good about my comparison.

More interesting were the Biblical elements of the story.  Yes the endless lists of names in the tradition of so-and-so begot so-and-so could be tedious. But what about the twelve tribes of vampires, scattered across the land.  And Amy, the benevolent, eternal entity who is their only hope for departing their painful earthly existences and passing peacefully to a next and better life. Cronin is an ingenious craftsman, and the fact that the story can take on Biblical proportions without becoming preachy is a testament to his talent.  I also like that it's a nod to our collective traditions of religious story telling.

That brings me to the ending.  Here's where I might get a little bit cynical.




This isn't an ending.  In fact, I think I just read an 800 page prologue. Justin Cronin has me right where he wants me.  Because I'd like to know how this book ends.  And apparently someone forgot to include it in the first printing.  Looks like I'll have to buy the next episode.  But there damn well better be an ending in that one.  Or I will refuse to buy book three as a matter of principle.  I joke only slightly.  Sure Babcock gets killed and we learn more about the fate of humanity but none of the core stories are resolved in any rewarding way. And after investing in 800 pages, I'd like to walk away without feeling like the ending was MIA. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Love is hard.

Here in Zion, we recently went through another gay debate as Boyd K. Packer reminded homosexuals where they fall in God's plan and the gays responded with indignation and more than one cheap shot. All this while gay teens are killing themselves at an alarming rate and everyone from Tim Gunn to a Texas City Councilman try to convince them that it gets better.

Against this backdrop, Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC) offers its new production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America.   And it's a reminder how much things have changed in the last 15 years, and how much they've stayed the same.  Certainly AIDS is no longer the absolute death sentence it once was.  And I don't think any of us ever imagined 15 years ago that gay marriage would be legal in six states.  Yet the disdain, even disgust that many feel for homosexuals is alive and well.

SLAC can sure do a lot with not a lot of theater. Without the capabilities of many of Salt Lake City's larger theaters, SLAC has to be more ingenious in staging plays.  Keven Myhre's set is a brilliant, travel-induced dream of lost luggage that helps fuel the story's crazed, globe-spanning hallucinations.  Myhre also directs this production with an almost Shakespearean sense of tragicomedy.

But the real reasons the show works are good actors delivering Kushner's brilliant dialogue.  Alexis Baigue crackles as Louis Ironson, the neurotic gay Jew who can't deal with a dying lover. Charles Lynn Frost makes you hate Roy Cohn, and at the same time somehow understand this complex character.  Alexander Bala is perfectly conflicted as the struggling, married Mormon trying to balance his sexuality with the rest of his life.  And I loved Colleen Baum as the mother, who convincingly communicates the difficulties of unconditional love.

In the end, this is a play that remembers, as Kushner's characters remind us, that "Love is hard."  It's hard if you're straight.  It's hard if you're a mother who learns her son is gay.  It's hard if you discover that your husband is gay.  And it's really hard if you're a man who falls in love with another man.  But Angels in America makes me want to stand on the side of love, no matter how hard it is.  And if we all do that, maybe the world will be a different place 15 years from now, when SLAC hopefully revisits this powerful play.

Angels in America runs through November 7, 2010.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Book twenty-nine: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

SPOILER ALERT.  There are comments in this post that give away elements of the ending.

When Jonathan Franzen's new book Freedom hit stores, it seemed like the book world could talk about nothing else. The reviewers raved endlessly about Franzen's amazing talent and modern story-telling ability.  So how could I not read the book.  But I downloaded it with a good deal of skepticism; I mean really, there's no way this book could be that good.  Mr. Franzen seems happy to prove my skepticism wrong.  This book is brilliant.

Franzen's writing is effortless.  So effortless that you sometimes forget how beautifully descriptive and observant it is.  It's hard to believe that Franzen is single with no children because he writes about family relationships with such precision that it infiltrates your mind and forces you to confront your own personal relationships.  I consider myself a pretty stable, well-adjusted person who's lived his life through strong family ties and no "psychological" issues. But this book called my stability into question, asking me to think about many of my relationships and how I've been unable to maintain some of them.

I loved the symmetrical structure of the book; the gossipy neighbors that inform the opening and closing; the dual third-person journals that fit just inside the opening and the closing (by the way my dislike of first-person writing seems justified in this book as Franzen chooses to have a character write her journals in third person); and the central sections that make you both love and hate key characters.

Freedom is long, clocking in at more than 12,500 Kindle units (beep boop bop bop beep). But it never reads long.  I never felt like the writing needed editing. And Freedom is often so engaging that I would re-read passages not to make sure I understood the meaning, but to just enjoy the writing.

For a book that loves depression and mental issues, Freedom offers a wonderful, happy ending, giving me hope that even if I've screwed up some my personal relationships, they might turn out alright after all.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book twenty-eight: Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson.

First published in 1947, Hans Keilson's novella Comedy in a Minor Key is a delight.  Maybe delight is the wrong word to use to describe a book about World War II.  But somehow, this story about a couple who decides to hide a Jewish man from the Nazi's is rewarding in an unexpected way.
I don't want to give too much away about the plot because I hope you'll read the book.  Wim and Marie are a loving couple who make significant sacrifices to help save the life of a complete stranger.  The result is a tale about people doing what's right, even when they're nervous about their decision.  It's a story that reminds us that doing what's right is a reward in itself.  But it's also a reminder that doing what's right, doesn't guarantee the rewards that so many stories would have us believe.  This novel makes me want to be a better, kinder person, even if being that person creates problems.
Short enough to be read in an afternoon, Comedy in a Minor Key is written in a simple, straightforward style.  But that doesn't mean it's simplistic.  The structure of the story is intricate and engaging. I'm definitely going to read Keilson's other book that was recently re-released in English.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The city that gives a DAM.

The last time I was in Denver, I paid a visit to the Denver Art Museum (DAM) and it made me realize that the mile high city is a lot more sophisticated that Salt Lake City. I was pissed.  This trip to DAM did nothing to make me feel any different.

I skipped the blockbuster King Tut exhibit (saw it in San Francisco and it was just OK) and headed straight for the contemporary galleries.  And DAM didn't disappoint.  A lot has changed since the last time I was there.  If MCA Denver is all about ignoring the permanent collection, DAM is about creating an unbelievable permanent collection, much of it modern.  And the museum delivers some mighty fine new art.

Much of the contemporary galleries are currently filled with works that explore the human form.  It was great to see so many surprising takes on the body, many by some of my favorite artists.  Take Marc Quinn's 1999 marble titled Jamie Gillespie.  By reminding us of ancient Roman and Greek sculptures missing appendages and yet revered for their physical perfection, Quinn asks us to question our attitudes about those with disabilities.

Tom Friedman wants us to keep our egos in check.  His diminutive form crafted from Styrofoam beads  reminds us of our insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe.

Exploring our dreams and nightmares are several works by Pia Stadtbaumer including this work, Max, Raven and Scissors (1999, Zellan, scissors and stuffed animal).

Fred Wilson offers his take on the Greek god atlas.  Instead of holding up the planet, this version of the god  holds up the classic books that define the world's greatest art even though they ignore almost everything outside of Europe and America.  To add insult to injury, Atlas stomps on a book about African art.  This is Untitled (Atlas), (1992, plaster and books).

It's not just sculpture that explores humanity at the Denver Art Museum.  There are some lovely paintings.  Take Wes Hempel's Fatherhood (1996, oil on canvas), which is mind blowing for its stunning beauty and art-historical references.

While most of the art is displayed beautifully, there are some questionable decisions.  I've been visiting museums for years hoping to see a Marylin Minter painting up close and personal.  And for the first time, I encountered one of Minter's strange, realist paintings, Tough Guy (1999, enamel on metal).  But it was hung so high on the wall it was impossible to get a good look at Minter's technique.  And that's what I've always wanted to get a better look at.

But the contemporary galleries at DAM weren't just about humanity.  There was plenty more to explore.  I loved Richard Patterson's massive painting Minotaur with Brush Strokes (1998, oil on canvas).

And Sandy Skoglund stops the show with her installation, Fox Games (1989, mixed media).  This takes fairy tales and turns them on their heads. It seems the foxes have won.  I couldn't help thinking that this says something about our current world; that we've somehow lost control and the foxes and wolves have taken over.  Little Red Riding Hood is in big trouble.

At most museums, I hit the contemporary galleries and head to my next adventure.  But Felix suggested we visit the photography galleries. Who knew, there's a lot of stuff to see in art museums outside of the contemporary galleries.  There's a brilliant photography show currently up at DAM called Exposure: Photos from the Vault. There are some amazing photographs including a brilliant self portrait of Chuck Close.  But my pick of the show was Berenice Abbott's strange and dreamy Designer's Window, Bleeker Street (1947, gelatin silver print).

And in the galleries devoted to Mexican art we ran across this stunning bit of old-world painting designed to help define the classes.  Franisco Clapera's Castas Paintings (about 1775, oil on canvas) were part of a supposedly common practice.  These types of painting attempted to showcase and categorize the various racial mixes occurring at the time.  Artists usually made these paintings in sets that showed fourteen to sixteen possible combinations, helping to define social distinctions. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

An art marathon at the Salt Lake Art Center.

For 48 hours this weekend you can view and even participate in a performance art piece created by Salt Lake City style maven and artist, Gary Vlasic.  The work is called Dark Horse/Fallen Shadows and is an homage to the dance marathons that were popular in the early part of the 20th Century.

Art marathons are all the rage these days.  In fact, this performance reminded me of recent performances in New York City.  The idea of keeping a museum space open for 24 hours a day was reminiscent of Michael Asher's proposal for the recent Whitney Biennial which called for the museum to remain open 24 hours a day for seven days.  (Budget restrictions meant they were only able to do it for three).  And Dark Horse/Fallen Shadows is very reminiscent of Marina Abromovic's The Artist is Present, recently on view at MoMA.  The set ups for both are striking for their similarity, each with a defined square space lit with four large light stands, one in each corner.  There was also similarity in the desire of the artists to encourage interaction with the audience; Abromovic asking visitors to sit and stare at her every day for over two months; Vlasic inviting the audience to join the dance, even inviting them to dance with him. 

I spent about two hours at Dark Horse/Fallen Shadows. The first hour was a more formal performance which was to take place Friday and Saturday nights at about 8:45.  The second hour was part of the marathon in which the professional dancers and museum goers are set loose to perform hour after hour.  There was a lot to like.  The choreography is ingenious with a mix of light, balletic movements that defy the demands of a 48-hour performance mixed with more angry and stern movements.  During the unstructured performance, the professional dancers could take individual choreographic lines and perform them at will, sometimes joined by another dancer, which gave the performance a dreamy air of reoccurring memory.  

Adding to the dream-like quality was a line of metronome's set at different tempos and allowed to wind down at their own pace.  The constant tic of the time keepers created an iconic image that will be hard to forget. Plus, it was just cool.

The dancers were good.  It was particularly fun to see Todd Allen who was responsible for the choreography and also performed as a dancer.  Allen was one Repertory Dance Theatre's best dancers but abandoned his Salt Lake City fans to dance in New York City.  For this performance he brought the physical dichotomies for which I remember him; a surprising ability to balance opposites like power and softness or ego and vulnerability.

Performance art is an unpleasant affair, at least if you judge from the facial expressions of its practitioners.  And Dark Horse/Fallen Shadows is no different.  You won't find any smiles in this performance.  It's all stern, somber faces that look pissed at the thought of having to carry on with these shenanigans for an endless 48 hours.  But why all the gloom.  There were moments that were charming, amusing, even silly.  And I wish that expression had shown itself in the performance.

In the program Vlasic notes, "I have always dreamed of the [Salt Lake Art Center] Main Gallery as a performing arena for my visual world and dreamscapes."  This prompted a wonderful memory.  Working nearly two decades ago for the Utah Symphony, we were planning a 50th anniversary celebration, one party of which was to be held at the Salt Lake Art Center.  We asked Vlasic to give us a proposal for the party.  And if my memory serves, Mr. Vlasic suggested an entire chorus line of tap dancers descending the Salt Lake Art Center's wooden staircase carrying flaming desserts.  Ultimately, the idea was deemed a little too flashy for the symphony crowd.  That wooden stair case is now gone, replaced with a cheap metal affair.  And there were no tap dancers.  But somehow, I felt like Gary Vlasic may have just achieved a dream, a grand spectacle that momentarily invades a beautiful space and our minds. 

You can still experience Dark Horse/Fallen Shadows this weekend.  It ends Sunday, September 26 at 6:00 p.m.  Doors are open all day and all night.  Here are a few more photos:

DJ Jesse Walker and Gary Vlasic

The program drew a large, hip crowd.

One of the Dark Horse/Fallen Shadows performers

DJ Jesse Walker

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Books twenty-six and twenty seven: Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I've decided to write about Suzanne Collins last two books in the Hunger Games series (Catching Fire and Mockingjay) in a single post.  I read them back-to-back and it seems easier to talk about them together.  I also need to start this post with a giant SPOILER ALERT!  In this post, I will talk about plot points that will spoil not just the endings but much of the books if you haven't read them and you intend to.

I wasn't sure I wanted to read these two books because I had some misgivings about the first novel in the series.  But my book club decided to read the entire series, which gave me ample encouragement.  And I'm glad I read the full series.

From a pure reading enjoyment experience, I think the first book is the best with its thrilling action sequences and hyper-fast pace.  But the second book offered a more nuanced story with some genuine plot surprises and more insight into characters.  My least favorite of the three is the last book which loses it's focus and offers a plot that sometimes feels haphazard. However all these books are delightfully readable and I can see why they are so popular.

That said, I do have issues with the books.  While I liked the plot of Catching Fire better than the others, there is one twist so obvious and forced that I can't help but call it out.  In this book, we learn that the rules of the game (once a child has survived the games, she never has to compete again) can easily change.  The changing of the rules felt like little more than a ploy to put Katniss Everdean back into the arena to fight it out to the death with other kids.  A more interesting plot would have made Katniss the mentor to another child forced to fight for his or her life. Although, I'll admit that this forced plot point sets up the second half of the book which is filled with fantastic plot twists and turns and some damn fine character development.  So maybe I should leave the storyline to Collins.

I've also complained that I don't like the first person voice of these books.  But now I'm not so sure.  I think what I may not like is teenage-girl angst.  There's an endless attitude of "woe is me" and "I'm such a terrible person" and "how can I ever live up to the goodness of Peeta" and "why do I have to constantly be such a disappointment to family" and " . . . "  This constant drone starts in book two and carries right on through book three.  For me, it's like Chinese water torture; a constant drip, drip, drip of negativity and self loathing that belies the powerful girl that is Katniss Everdean.

These books also treat some pretty serious stuff with surprising frivolity:

On teenage pregnancy: Let's tell everyone that Katniss is pregnant with Peeta's baby. Isn't that romantic?

On underage drinking: Yes you've had a really bad day.  Go knock back a few with Haymitch.

On prescription drug abuse:  Life is better when shrouded in a drug-y haze

On suicide: Yes, your teen life sucks.  Why not consider ending it all?

On revenge killing: What a great idea!

It's this last point, that made me ultimately not like Katniss Everdean as a literary character.  In book three, Katniss is obsessed with executing President Snow.  In the end, she doesn't directly kill him.  Instead, with no thought or moral conflict and in front of a blood thirsty crowd, Katniss coldly shoots District 13's President Coin through the heart because she may or may not have been responsible for the death of Katniss's sister. Yes, a lot of people would call me a weak, spineless liberal.  But I think execution demands a more careful consideration.

This post risks coming off as too negative.  So let me end with a bit a praise for Suzanne Collins.  I heard an interview with her on the New York Times Book Review podcast and she was brilliant.  I particularly liked how much credit she gives her audience of young readers.  She talked about how my generation is creating massive social and ecological problems that I won't have to deal with in my life.  Instead, it's the kids reading her books that will have to face some monumental problems. And that's why her books ask kids to face some pretty serious issues and ideas.  She confronts these issues in her books brilliantly.  Issues like the morality of reality TV. Or ecological degradation. War. Poverty. Economic disparity.  Tackling tough issues like these with honesty (yet written with such excitement) is what makes these books so powerful.

A look at what's new.

Here's a great idea.  Let's create a museum dedicated to contemporary art.  In fact let's be so dedicated to contemporary art, that we're not going to have a permanent collection.  Once a year, we'll change out everything in the museum with completely new stuff that we don't own.

The egos of most museums would prevent them from taking such a position.  But that's exactly the idea behind Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA).  In fact, if you talk to the gallery attendants or the super-friendly woman at the gift shop, they can tell you by name the entire permanent collection of the museum which includes a total of three works. (OK, there are technically more than three since the work in the cafe includes a number of ceramic sculptures by the same artist.)

One of the works in the permanent collection is brilliant and by a duo of my favorite artists.  Tim Noble and Sue Webster are most notorious for their chaotic sculptures that create simplified silhouettes when lit with a spotlight. A perfect example is the penis sculpture I recently saw at the New Museum.  In Denver, they've created a spectacular lighted bleeding heart called Toxic Schizophrenia (Hyper Version) that resides outside the museum.  I'll definitely be visiting this sculpture at night on my next visit to Denver. I love it. Can I please get a giant, lighted bleeding heart in front of my house.

But we're not here to talk about the permanent collection because that's not what this museum is about.  Before I get to the exhibit, I have to make a quick comment about the entrance to the museum.  I seriously couldn't figure out how to get in.  There isn't a door.  Fortunately, I walked far enough into the walkway that I triggered the motion sensors.  And suddenly a massive metal wall glided open to let me in.  That alone made me love MCA Denver.

The exhibit that was on display (unfortunately it closed shortly after my visit so you can't see it) was Energy Effects: Art and Artifacts from the Landscape of Glorious Excess.  This was a great show that tries to tackle our endless appetite for energy and power, and how that desire has led to an orgy of excess. 

I loved Jeff Shore and Jon Fisher's Cliff Hanger (2009; 5 mins. 20 secs.; wood, wire, plastic aluminum, cameras, motors, guitar strings, drawer glide, light bulbs, custom electronics, computer, monitor, speakers and button).  You press a button and set in motion a unique movie that is created from the strange, Rube-Golbergian contraption that reminds us how complex our lives have become.

On the other side of complex, there's Viviane le Courtois's Chaussures (1991 - present; fiber).  Viviane hand makes her own flip-flops from natural fibers.  She wears them until they begin to disintegrate.  The whole time she writes about what happened while wearing her rustic sandals.  At MCA, hundreds of her worn-out footwear are on display. It's a reminder that energy and power are fueled by real people, not by oil or gas or wind. 

One of the surprises of this show was it's willingness to embrace objects some wouldn't call art.  Take the B61 Thermonuclear Bomb (1968 - present; two of an estimated 3,155 original models) from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  Seriously, anytime I can go to an art museum and confront real, live nuclear bombs, I'm thrilled.  This is scary stuff.  Shouldn't we be taking this more seriously.  It was a perfect reminder that we're intent on wiping out our own species.

If the whole idea behind this museum wasn't intoxicating enough, they have one other surprise.  In the library, many of the artists who have shown works at the museum have left a souvenir behind; a reminder of their time at the museum.  It's a wonderful bit of contemporary art-world love.  Tiny, strange items that say more about the experience of art than the commercialism of art. It's a wonderful idea. 

Here's Felix wandering the library:


And here are two doll-like self portraits left behind by Tim Noble and Sue Webster. This makes me want to invite artist friends over in hopes that they'll leave a little something behind in my home.